|Jillian and me at the ALA Midwinter Meeting. Wouldn't we have been great flappers?|
Jillian was gracious enough to take time out of her schedule to answer a few questions for me about the unique struggles of trying to get your first book published. I wish I could have read her detailed answers back when I was a flailing and confused aspiring author!
Also, we're giving away a signed, hardback copy of The Lost Girl of Astor Street to one U.S. resident! Entry details can be found after my interview with Jillian.
Here's a little more about Jillian:
SM: I talk with a lot of young writers who want to be traditionally published, but are kinda stressed out about the idea of needing a platform. When you're looking at a manuscript for a writer who hasn't been published, what kind of marketability do you like to see? What kind of social media numbers make you say, "Okay, we can work with that."
JM: Publishing is a business, and sales and marketing people want to know that the books editors bring them can be commercially viable—meaning they can sell! One of the ways to help sell a book is by being an author with a platform online, since that means you have a built-in fan base.
For a debut author, I definitely want to see a professional website/blog, as well as a minimum of 1,500 followers across a maximum of three platforms. Those three can be a mix of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and YouTube, and it helps to see a steady number of followers on each site, rather than 1,000 on Twitter and 10 on Facebook. (P.S. Editors know what a follow-for-follow account looks like, so someone who has 10K followers but is following 12K people will give us pause.)
I’ll admit, it’s a little scary when I get a manuscript in and when I go to look up the author online I find…nothing. No website, no blog, no social media. (And by social media, I mean professional social media, not a personal page for friends and family.) That being said, I know that someone who has never published a book won’t have the same draw to followers as a published author would have. So the only real “rule” I try to follow is to make sure the author has some form of professional presence online to use as a starting point.
SM: Lots of writers (me included) feel nervous about pitching a novel to an editor at a conference. Do you have any thoughts on this or advice that can help us chill out a bit?
JM: I have a blog post for that! The most important thing to remember is that you are talking to another human being who loves books and writing as much as you do. WE ARE YOUR PEOPLE! We are simply the people who hold the red pens, which does make us a little scary. But if you come with a polished manuscript and meet with someone who publishes books in your genre, you’re likely to have a great conversation.
SM: That "conversation" word is key, I think. When I first started pitching, I rehearsed so much that I kinda forgot it was supposed to be a conversation. The publishing process can feel really mysterious and confusing. Is there something you wish writers understood better about editors or how it all works?
JM: You know, the publishing world always feels a little bit like a secret club, which I think can make it tough for writers to know what’s going on behind the scenes. Here are a few things I often tell new writers about our little universe:
- Most editors do not make unilateral decisions when it comes to acquiring a book. Even if I love a manuscript with all my heart and believe it will sell a billion copies, I still have to convince my publisher, my marketing team, and my sales team. And that convincing requires research, presentations, and a whole lot of data—not just beautiful words!
- Companies can only publish a certain number of books each year. There are only so many people to do the work, and only so many books that can fit on the shelves. As a result, we have to be incredibly picky about which books we publish and when.
- Publishing isn’t usually a speedy business. Sometimes it can take two years (or more, if you’re George R. R. Martin) to publish a book, even after the initial version is turned in. This is a result of the best timing to release a book (e.g. you always want to release a Christmas book around Christmastime), as well as the sheer number of hours it takes to edit, design, print, market, and distribute a book.
- Last, and most importantly, editors can tell when you are turning in a first draft vs. a fourth draft. And on behalf of my people, please, please take the time to edit and revise your novel once on your own and once with a critique partner before submitting it. The whole process is more enjoyable when we can work with a polished draft.
SM: So, sometimes as a reader, I hear a concept for a book, and I think I'm going to LOVE it. But then the experience doesn't quite live up to my expectations. Does that ever happen to you with submissions. Have you ever requested a submission because you liked the story idea, but then when you receive the manuscript and start reading it, you don't connect to the story like you thought you would?
JM: Unfortunately this does happen. I’d say the most common reasons I have to say no to a good idea are:
- Unpolished writing: Check out my rant on drafts in the fourth bullet above. Editors can work a lot of magic with a manuscript, but if we get sent something that contains obvious typos, major plot holes, or just mediocre writing, we’re not likely to want to spend the time and effort to get the book into presentable shape.
- Poor execution: Great ideas are great, but great execution is better. If your pitch promises to be totally original and utterly fascinating, the entire book needs to live up to that—and I mean every single sentence. I’ve been excited about unique concepts before, only to find that the author has bitten off more than they can chew and the story ends up feeling weird or confusing.
- Undeveloped characters: In YA especially, characters are hugely important. Due to the age of the protagonists, most YA novels feature coming of age stories, which means I need to see a character change and grow and learn (for better or for worse) throughout the story. If someone has an awesome pitch but a character that is one-dimensional, I quickly lose interest.
SM: Let's go back to that unpolished manuscript thing. Many writers struggle with editing their own novels. Obviously, there's no replacement for getting feedback and corrections from a professional editor, but do you have one or two tips for how to be a better self-editor?
JM: First and foremost, take a break—at least one month—from the time you finish your book until the time you edit it. In that month, read one or more books in your genre to inspire you…and also show you places where your story needs work. Then, when you go back to edit with fresh eyes, think about what you loved about those books (without copying them, of course!) and how you can improve your work.
Second, I recommend reading the book out loud. Not all of it, necessarily, but definitely the dialogue. That will help you catch spots that don’t quite feel like a normal conversation. Third, when you’re editing your book, pay attention to repetition of certain words and phrases. We all have ticks in our writing, and you might find you used the word “dangerously” 128 times, which, in my professional opinion, is about 120 times too many.
And last but not least, learn more about editing! There are tons of books and blogs that talk about the art of editing, and the more you learn, the better you will be when editing your work or someone else’s.
Stephanie here again. That's a perfect note to leave it on, because it gives me another chance to mention that Jillian has a fabulous blog that you should all be reading on a regular basis.
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